Could South Indian action epic RRR ride its global popularity to Oscar glory?
Critics say the Telugu-language film is underscored by a troubling current of Hindu nationalism
Miranda Halfyard had no idea what she was getting into when her film critic father took her to a Toronto screening of South Indian action epic RRR last year.
She soon found out: The three-hour, Telugu-language film is at once a fiery saga of mighty scope (an early scene shows a soldier single-handedly battling a horde of 1,000 men) with heart-stopping action sequences (a man is chased by a ferocious tiger through a jungle before he subdues it), as much as it is a historical drama with vibrant displays of music and dance.
"I sat down and I was tired, but instantly, the second it started playing, the adrenaline was up and it kind of just stayed up the whole time," said Halfyard, an 18-year-old University of Guelph student.
"My heart was beating really fast," she said. "I was on the edge of my seat."
All of that is to say, RRR is amassing fans all over the world, taking in more than $150 million US at the global box office since March 2022. It's an international hit with the kind of horsepower that could send it all the way to the Oscars this year.
One of the most expensive films ever made in India, RRR (rise, roar, revolt) is set in 1920s pre-independent India. It tells the story of a merciless British officer, Raju, and a small village warrior, Bheem, who become unlikely friends — they just don't realize that one has been ordered to track down and kill the other.
Could RRR nab an Oscar nod?
RRR's momentum has so far carried it through awards season, as organizations like the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards have given the action-packed film its roses — particularly for its mid-film earworm Naatu Naatu, which has bested submissions by Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Taylor Swift as an original song contender.
But these are comparably small potatoes ahead of Tuesday morning's Oscar nominations, where RRR could be the rare film from Tollywood — the Telugu-language film industry — celebrated during Hollywood's biggest night, according to Clayton Davis, senior awards editor at Variety.
"I wish and hope and pray that the Academy can be so cool to nominate something so great in the best picture race," Davis said, noting that a best picture nomination is "on the table" for RRR. Naatu Naatu is likely a shoe-in for best original song.
"There definitely is an international outlook from the industry and particularly the Academy," Davis said. "They've done a great job of expanding. Their voting demographic does include a lot of international members now, and they would be more open to something like RRR."
The film probably won't be recognized in the technical categories, nor for its acting and screenwriting, he said. It still faces an uphill battle — and not just because it's three hours long.
Non-English language films typically have harder times with the Academy, Davis said, even though they have embraced more non-English language titles, including films like 2019's Parasite and 2018's Roma.
"The cultural zeitgeist that RRR is tapped into is what's kept it alive in the race."
An electric theatrical experience
Just ask Ryan Cultrera, a fan who attended a bonkers screening of RRR at the famed TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles earlier this month. Over 900 people attended the screening, which sold out in 93 seconds, according to Variety.
Director S.S. Rajamouli and stars N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan were in the audience for the film's first North American screening — where fans roused the famed cinema by flocking toward the screen during the Naatu Naatu dance scene, jumping and singing while the movie played behind them.
Absolutely wild night at the Chinese Theater for <a href="https://twitter.com/RRRMovie?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RRRMovie</a>. Thanks to <a href="https://twitter.com/BeyondFest?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BeyondFest</a> for starting my year out with the best damn screening I’ll be a part of. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/naatu?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#naatu</a> <a href="https://t.co/AScWXgXTNt">pic.twitter.com/AScWXgXTNt</a>—@ryan_cultrera
"It was completely unprompted," said Cultrera, a filmmaker and movie buff.
"My friend and I, we were sitting towards the front of the theatre and we just saw everyone starting to rush up and were like, 'We have to do it.' It just caught on … it was infectious."
RRR's theatrical run was further bolstered by a streaming deal with Netflix, where it became available last May. Rajamouli, a longtime director whose Baahubali films are among India's highest-grossing, was surprised by the reception in North America and Europe.
"A good story is a good story for everyone, but I didn't think I could make films for Western sensibilities. I never believed myself," he told Entertainment Weekly in an interview.
"So when it came out on Netflix and people started watching it, and word of mouth started spreading, when the critics started giving out good reviews, yes — I was really, really surprised."
Cultrera first watched RRR on Netflix with his film club, while Halfyard has been introducing it to friends with home screenings. But both were electrified by the in-person theatrical experience.
"I would honestly say that's going to be hard to top as a cinematic experience," Cultrera said. "There is before and after seeing RRR in a theatre."
But the film's anti-colonial message of two men rising up against the British Empire is underscored by a current of Hindu nationalism, said Meher Manda, a culture critic in Kochi, India. It's one of the main criticisms that the film has received since its release.
Hindu nationalism is the right-wing political ideology espoused by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government. It suggests the country's majority Hindu faith should shape India's culture and its policies, often, critics say, to the detriment of minorities, including Muslims.
"It's irrefutable to acknowledge that the movie operates with a very upper caste bias," said Manda, referring to India's social hierarchy. "It's a bias that has reflected in the filmmaker's earlier works."
The film's protagonists, Raju and Bheem, are based on real-life historical figures from Telugu-speaking regions Andhra and Telangana. While RRR depicts both as heroes meant to be seen as equals in an "anti-colonial struggle … the movie ensures we understand they're not equal," Manda said.
She notes that Raju, who in real life was from an upper-caste, is depicted as a well-educated and cultured man who serves in the British Army, while Bheem, a revolutionary from the Indigenous Gond tribe, is depicted as primal and uneducated. The portrayals can't be divorced from the context of rising Hindu nationalism across India.
"I think that nuance is not just missing, but it intentionally has been done away with and that can perhaps be tied to the fact that it has been so successful."
With files from Eli Glasner and Laura Thompson